Marketing campaigns are always a key ingredient in responding to natural disasters, and showing travelers that a destination hasn't completely bottomed out. To get the message out, it also helps to have sufficient funding and resources, which some islands are currently lacking.
Many U.S. and Caribbean destinations this year are doing hurricane damage control in terms of post-storm marketing — something that largely wasn’t needed for a significant swath of the region for more than a decade.
Storms such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria caused an estimated $188 billion or more in damages this year, making 2017 the costliest season on record, according to AccuWeather. The wreckage from the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season was also very substantial but didn’t reach this year’s level.
The region’s travel industry and visitor arrivals have also grown considerably over the past dozen years.
The Caribbean had 22.2 million tourist arrivals in 2005 compared with 29 million in 2016, a 30 percent increase. Social channels — which didn’t exist or were nascent a dozen years ago – serve to spread both images of the devastation and can be used for marketing purposes, as well.
Hard-hit destinations like the Florida Keys were relatively quick to launch marketing campaigns telling travelers to come back, trying combat what it sees as misperceptions of the situation on the ground after the storms. While the archipelago suffered a direct hit from Irma, the outer islands had minimal damage.
Andy Newman, a spokesman for Monroe County’s Tourist Development Council, which handles destination marketing for the Keys, said some U.S. government agencies have done the destination more harm than good after Irma. “The Department of Defense did a press release after the storm that said the Navy would come in and evacuate 10,000 Keys residents because there was no water for them,” he said. “I spoke to the Key West city manager and I kept saying, ‘where is this coming from?’ We found out subsequently that it was too late and the information was broadcast.”
Newman added: “Then, the [Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)] administrator was quoted as saying 90 percent of residences in the Florida Keys were damaged or uninhabitable when actually the amount is around 25 percent.”
Parts of the Keys will undoubtedly still be in repair mode for its high season, which starts in December, but it will still have perfect vacation opportunities, Newman contended. “Most of the time with a storm we’re in the cone and then the storm misses us and then the media takes off and we’re stuck with this perception,” he said.
“Another challenge for us was the BP oil spill in 2010,” said Newman. “We never got one single drop of BP oil but the media was saying that the oil would reach the Keys and that made many travelers worry.”
The destination is leveraging all of its online platforms to show the Keys in real-time and convey accurate information about which parts are fine to visit. It’s has enlisted the support of Gloria Estefan, a longtime South Florida resident, to use her song “Coming Out of the Dark” in a marketing video highlighting recovery in the Keys and also showing how some areas were untouched.
Miami Is Bouncing Back
Nearby Miami, which fared much better than it was initially projected to during Irma, also isn’t a stranger to dealing with weather-related misperceptions.
The lead up to Hurricane Irma was prolonged, said Rolando Aedo, chief marketing officer of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Technology was the bane and beauty of all this,” he said. “As good as we’ve become with technology and predictions, hurricane tracks still change.”
Beyond the human tragedy, Aedo said hurricanes and extreme weather take a financial and psychological toll on the travel industry. “We had 10 of the prior 13 weeks before Irma with positive revenue per available room growth,” he said. “We were building momentum from Hurricane Matthew and Zika.”
But the area’s tourism industry is mostly back on track. “Our hotels did take a hit but meeting planners are a unique track,” said Aedo. “Outright cancellations for meetings hasn’t happened and this is where we’ve really pulled up our sleeves.”
Places like Miami want to keep building momentum. The Greater Miami CVB launched its Miami Now campaign on September 18 after Irma clipped the area.
The convention bureau normally spreads its deals and promotions over the course of a year, but consolidated many of its annual promotions post-Irma to assuage wary travelers. “We’re communicating that we’re open for business but perhaps doing that in an elegant and nuanced way,” said Aedo. “Being such an international destination, we have a global network of 52 agencies around the globe and having them amplify our message is a tremendous tool that we didn’t have during the last active season 10 years ago.”
Cayman Islands Was Unscathed but has work to do
The Cayman Islands took a beating from Hurricane Ivan in 2004 that caused major setbacks and it took years for its tourism industry to recover, said Rosa Harris, director of tourism for the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism.
This British Overseas Territory has so far escaped the wrath of this hurricane season, which officially ends on November 30, but it’s still trying to market how it’s different from competing islands.
The destination just launched its first romance campaign, which wasn’t connected to recent hurricanes, said Harris.
The campaign features Cayman Islands native and actress Grace Byers and her husband Trai Byers, who both star in the TV series “Empire.”
“We wanted to refresh and make the Cayman Islands a little sexier,” said Harris. “In recent years we’ve played it really safe.”
Harris said the Cayman Islands has long been known as a destination-wedding location and its tourism board has been marketing weddings for years. But the romance and couples aspect was still somehow missing.
The average party size of travelers to the destination is 2.3 people, said Harris. “Our demographics shifted in terms of our target markets,” she said. “We’re still protecting our family market but growing couples became a priority.”
Learning From History
New Orleans has also been taking a second look at how it markets itself, something it’s done periodically but particularly since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Mark Romig, president and CEO of New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., said the smartest thing the city did after Katrina was speaking with one voice and bringing sports teams, hotels, restaurants and the convention and visitors bureau together to the same table.
New Orleans’ first post-storm ad campaign started in spring 2006. “A couple of months after Katrina we started telling travelers to come back and we had volunteers here,” he said. “We hosted Mardi Gras that February.”
After Katrina, the convention bureau created a hospitality master plan through 2018 and worked with Boston Consulting Group on a 12-point study to find ways to reduce crime, improve taxi service and revitalize popular tourists areas like the city’s French Quarter, for example.
Romig said the city’s tourism industry is about where he thought it would be in 2018 when it created its master plan nearly 12 years ago. “There are still many things we haven’t been able to do yet,” he said. “Soon after our study was adopted we had the BP oil spill. People weren’t coming to New Orleans because they thought there was oil on Bourbon Street.”
The New Orleans tourism body also thought it would have a $45 million marketing budget by this point but is only about two-thirds of the way there, said Romig.
The city also didn’t reach its 13.7 million visitors by 2018 goal – it got 10.5 million last year and isn’t projected to make the goal this year. But the city did get $7.5 billion in annual visitor spend.
Remnants of Katrina still linger but New Orleans, for the most part, is looking forward. It recently launched its “One Time, In New Orleans” campaign to help celebrate the city’s 300th birthday in 2018. The campaign includes an ad that’s airing during Monday night football in the U.S. that encourages travelers to connect historical New Orleans stories with experiences they engage in during the coming year.
“We’re appealing to everyone’s nature to share a story either before, during or after a trip,” said Romig.
In Houston, where many locals are still recovering from Hurricane Harvey, the city’s tourism board has taken cues from New Orleans.
“We learned from Katrina to have a crisis communication plan,” said Jorge Franz, vice president of tourism for Visit Houston. “Every bit of planning that we could have done that we learned from went into play.”
Houston also welcomed many Katrina evacuees and has experience with the humanitarian aspect of natural disasters. Franz said the tourism board was involved in opening the city’s convention center to Harvey evacuees.
“New Orleans reached out personally to us and it’s very real stuff,” said Franz. “To try to put a pretty face on it is not what we want to do, we want to be honest. We’re an open and diverse city and that’s what the whole country saw. We’re not deterred by this event.”
Franz said the city has once again laid out the welcome mat for travelers. “We’re going to be thanking consumers who have helped us,” he said. “We haven’t lost any significant pieces of our business. Business travel is so essential to Houston and as soon as the airport reopened business travel started to come back. Hotels are also running with high occupancy.”
While some destinations impacted by the storms are returning to a semblance of normalcy, others such as Dominica, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands, St. Maarten and Puerto Rico face a long road to recovery. In Puerto Rico, for example, 80 percent of residents remain without power.
Some Caribbean islands are still hoping to pool together funding and resources to launch a regional marketing campaign in time for high season, but those prospects don’t look promising.
Destinations like the Florida Keys are welcoming back cruise ships and – slowly – other overnight visitors. But from a destination marketing standpoint, some plans have been put on hold.
Newman said the Keys has changed a lot of its public relations plans for the fiscal year that began October 1. “We were going to hire a Chinese PR agency and do other things in Europe,” he said. “But we decided to pull that back and focus on our domestic and traditional UK and European markets. The bottom line is that we need to be able to fish where the fish are.”
The Turks & Caicos received some hurricane damage this season, albeit mild compared to some of its neighbors. The destination decided that even with many travelers perceiving the Caribbean as an unfavorable place to visit because of widespread misperceptions, it won’t offer any discounts on hotel room rates because of the storms, said Ramon Andrews, director of the Turks & Caicos Tourism Board.
“Our product hasn’t changed and we are delivering the same level of service and luxury refinement that was had prior to the hurricanes,” said Andrews. “The experience isn’t less, so the rates aren’t either. There is no lasting damage that will impact a visitor’s trip. The beaches aren’t any less pristine. The hotels aren’t offering a reduced level of service.”
“Visitors who come to Turks & Caicos now will not feel a difference in the experience compared to those who came prior to the hurricanes, and offering a discounted rate can imply otherwise,” said Andrews.
Andrews said maintaining rate integrity is also being done with hospitality workers in mind. “The importance of rate integrity is not something to take lightly; with a hotel background myself, I know that firsthand,” he said. “It’s also worth noting that maintaining rates guarantees staff salaries and that subsequently their needs and costs of living are met, which was also a very important point for us in supporting our people.”
There’s little doubt that the region is dealing with challenges – and more intensely unfavorable weather – that wasn’t as acute during past hurricane seasons.
The Caribbean is still in its shoulder season. Tourism boards are waiting to see if their post-storm marketing efforts will pay off in a few months.
Photo credit: Hurricane-ravaged destinations are launching marketing campaigns to try to move past the storms. Pictured are members of the U.S. Coast Guard in Houston after Hurricane Harvey in August. Coast Guard News / Flickr